About the Author
View more articles by Yeji Lee
Yeji Lee is a North Korean defector now living in the South. She is originally from Samjiyon County, in the country's north east.
Every week or so, we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country.
Got a question? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
This week a new writer introduces themselves: Yeji Lee, who has chosen to write under a pseudonym to protect family still in the country.
Hello, my name is Yeji Lee. My hometown is Samjiyon County, in Ryanggang Province, the same place where North Korean propaganda tells us Kim Jong Il was born. Relics of that revolutionary era lie all over the lakes of Samjiyon.
I had a dream when I was young. I learned singing at the Children’s Palace in my hometown, but when I got to middle school I couldn’t continue because of our financial problems. While learning art was my only dream in middle and high school, I couldn’t tell that to my parents because it is costly to learn art and attend college in North Korea: this was a privilege given only to the wealthy.
Although North Korea is supposed to be a socialist state, you can do nothing without money. I couldn’t let my dream fade away, so I always went to see plays and performances of singers when they came to my town. When I graduated and got a job, Kim Jong Un came to my hometown for the first time in three years and, after seeing my hometown’s performance, criticized us: he said our music needed to be more modern.
The next day, he sent famous songwriters and solo singer Ryum Chung to help. I tried to achieve my dream of becoming a performer after Kim’s visit, but I failed the audition because our family didn’t have enough money. Singers got funds from the government since Kim said artists needed to be supported, but when a certain job gets financial allocations from the government, many people rush to get that job.
When I went out for a tryout, I was very nervous but I also thought I would not be qualified for this position because I was not from the wealthy class. Most of the people who came out to audition were from the wealthy class and I didn’t qualify. Afterward, I gave up becoming a singer and didn’t go to see any performances.
“Although North Korea is supposed to be a socialist state, you can do nothing without money”
Unlike many other towns, my hometown received some benefits from the government: during the holidays the state distributed rice or snacks to the people. Because it was located near the Jong Il Peak of Paektu Mountain, a place known for Kim Jong Il’s birth, most of the people make a living from protecting previous battle sites.
I’ve heard my hometown is going through modernization, and that Kim Jong Un is remodeling the town on a large scale; especially, sites near the border and remnants of revolution are getting renovated. Everything is getting modernized although it is costly, and I have heard many new sophisticated buildings have been built.
My hometown was cold: we planted potatoes in June and harvested them in September. No farming could be done after that because of the climate. Moreover, the farms couldn’t be freely plowed since the trees in our hometown were regarded as historic remains: you could go to prison for cutting one down.
“I didn’t tell my family and I regret this the most”
Because the town was close to the border, security was tight: the secret police kept a close eye on all of us.
I started engaging in business after my audition didn’t succeed. I did a wide range of work, from selling vegetables to smuggling. I did many things to earn money and that’s how I eventually ended up China.
I was often cheated because of my inexperience in the field. I became a victim of fraud, losing all the money I’d earned selling fruit that I picked during the summer, and could not face my parents. I chose to defect – I knew my family’s financial situation very well and that they would have a very hard time without that money during the winter.
I asked my friend to take me to China for a month to earn money. I didn’t tell my family and I regret this the most, and always apologize to them when I talk to them on the phone once in a while.
My first job after I left North Korea was making sawdust. I got an injury on my face from a fight between my friends and my Chinese boss, who didn’t pay us. I was moved to a hospital with my friends, who were caught eventually.
Because my friends were captured and I was left alone, I couldn’t go back to my hometown and began farming when spring came. I met a nice elderly couple and worked in their house for a year. Then, for the first time in two years, I was able to send news to my hometown and, in my third year, I began working at a Chinese restaurant, where I learned about a way to get to South Korea.
I came here last year.
I left Hanawon – the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees – last September and have been studying since then, but haven’t been able to choose my career: my obligation to earn money to send money to my father, who is fighting with an illness, is inhibiting my future a little.
As I am writing this, I think about my future and I feel like, once again, I am again giving up my dream like I did in North Korea, where economic hardships restricted me. Luckily the South Korean government is financially supporting me.
Although I can’t go to HAFS (Hankuk University of Foreign Studies), my small wish is to tell the world about life in North Korea, which gives me satisfaction even though I can’t attend college. Honestly speaking, my ultimate goal is to graduate from HAFS and tell the world about North Korea at the United Nations.
This is all for my introduction. I look forward to hearing your questions and will do my best to answer them. Thank you.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Translated by Jenny Lee